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The first half of Cixin Liu’s novel The Dark Forest (a follow-up to his Hugo Award-winning book The Three Body Problem) is a very good science fiction story. It’s well-written, it begins with an intriguing, ant-centric (you’ll see) prologue, and it gives the over-worked “alien invasion” plot an original twist: what would happen if human beings knew ahead of time that a superior alien race (the Trisolarans in this case) was coming to annihilate us and take over our planet? Thousands of their ships are on the way, and their technology is beyond anything we can even imagine.

But – and this is the twist – because of the immensity of space, it will take them hundreds of years to get here. We’ve got time to think about it: time to freak out, and also time to plan.

The book’s main character, Chinese sociologist and astronomer Luo Ji, is picked to be one of the Wallfacers, people picked specifically to find a way to beat the Trisolarans and save humanity. For the Wallfacers, deceit and secrecy are paramount. To quote the UN Secretary General in the book:

“The Wallfacers are undertaking the most difficult mission in human history. They will truly be on their own, their souls closed off to the world, to the entire universe.”

Initially, Luo Ji has absolutely no idea why he has been chosen: he’s not that successful, he’s not that ambitious, and he can’t imagine how anyone could defeat the Trisolarans. Luo Ji is also rather selfish, arrogant, and somewhat obnoxious, and soon after being chosen, he sums up his attitude like this:

“Screw the Wallfacer Project.”

But, and this is a mystery to Luo Ji and everyone else: the Trisolarans want him dead. For some reason, they consider him a bigger threat than any other human being on Earth.

There are several secondary characters in The Dark Forest: Luo Ji’s down-to-earth friend and protector Shi Qiang; the hard-nosed soldier Zhang Beihai; Luo Ji’s somewhat too-perfect love-interest and then wife Zhuang Yan; and others. I confess that many of these secondary characters made little impression on me, but Zhang Beihai is probably my favourite character in The Dark Forest: he is also more of a second main character than a secondary character, and has a terrific story-line of his own that runs parallel to Luo Ji’s.

Like I said, the first half of the book is like a good, well-written, if slightly slow-moving science fiction story. But then, just about halfway through, Cixin Liu pulls off what really good science fiction can do: he suddenly makes you wonder W T F is going on. I won’t reveal exactly what happens, but from this point on, The Dark Forest turns into a fantastic, mind-spinning science-fiction-roller-coaster-ride. This second half of the story is weird, wonderful, dark, harrowing, and ultimately very satisfying. The way humanity’s confrontation with the Trisolarans plays out – as both Earth’s fate and Luo Ji’s plan are revealed bit by spine-chilling, mind-bending bit – had me turning the pages frantically to find out what would happen next.

Several things about The Dark Forest remind me of Isaac Asimov’s work, specifically his Foundation-series. There’s the hard science fiction angle, of course. There’s also the introduction of ‘cosmic sociology’ and the ‘axioms of a cosmic civilization’ – intriguing concepts in The Dark Forest that are similar (though not identical) to Asimov’s Sheldon-plan. There’s also the massive scope of the story: just like Asimov, Cixin Liu deals with massive distances in both space and time. Finally, there’s the fact that wrapped up in all of that hard sci-fi with its weapons and technology and giant space craft and brutal space battles, there is a rather soft, almost sentimental, heart. Asimov had that, too.

I won this first-read copy of The Dark Forest in a Goodreads giveaway earlier this year, and haven’t even read The Three Body Problem yet, but I will definitely be reading it now. You can read The Dark Forest on its own – enough of the previous plot is explained in the book – but Cixin Liu’s writing certainly has me intrigued enough to sample his other work.

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